The Cultural and Religious Life of Russia: 1533-1689

Religion has held an important role in the culture and politics of Russia since the early days of Kievan Rus. The earliest religious thought and practice in Russia was paganism which was quite popular with most of the population. The beginnings of Christianity in Russia are attributed to the reign of Vladimir I in 988 AD. This ruler, after looking at a few different religions, chose orthodox Christianity as his preferred 'national' religion and then encouraged and 'invited' the nobles and other citizens to join. In time, orthodox Christianity took firm hold and the spirits/ earth deities of paganism were slowly put aside. And with the support of the Russian rulers as well as the immersion of the religious beliefs and behaviors into Russian culture, it has become a little difficult sometimes to see the threads of where religion is separate from other parts of the Russian constituent's life as it had been in the past. By the reign of Ivan IV, Orthodox Christianity was the only major religion in the Russian state and territories. This paper will discuss the role that religion played in the lives of the Russian people between the years of 1533-1689 and how Western religion tried to influence the Russian orthodox religion.

One important factor that must be considered when discussing Russian religion during this time frame is the idea that emphasis was put on Moscow as the center of the 'true' Christian civilization. The fall of the Byzantine empire to the Ottomans gave Russia the unexpected opportunity to become a potential leader of the world wide orthodox community. This opportunity was taken advantage of in different ways. In 1589 and shortly after the death of Ivan IV, the orthodox church in Russia elevated its 'metropolitan'* to the title of 'patriarch' which helped to separate the Byzantine church from the Russian church... and in Russian eyes and most practical matters, the Patriarch’s word and opinion was now the most important of all the 'heads' of the differing orthodox churches. By 1533, the influence of the orthodox church... or at least monasticism was starting to wane and the government as well as the church began to hold more sway over the population. And time gave the government more ability to strengthen its powers over the church. In 1649, the law code passed by Tsar Alexei forbid sermons to be insulting to the upper classes and removed some church lands from the church and placed them in governmental control- this action was not considered acceptable to all church nobility and some members of the upper church nobility refused to sign the law code due to the perceived 'semi-secularization' of the church. By 1686, the Russian orthodox church (or the Church of the Third Rome) dominated all orthodoxy in Northern Europe. Reforms and schism within the church itself changed the way that the church was viewed by much of the population... as well as how the ritualistic behaviors of the church were performed.

Another important factor that should be discussed when examining the religion and culture of Russia during this time was the growth of foreign influences- especially in the seventeenth century. The pope of the Roman Catholic Church thought of members of the Byzantine or Orthodox church as heretics or schismatics – and had since the 'schism' of 1054. So it was not unheard of for the pope to allow or even advocate 'crusades' against the infidels- which could and would include the Orthodox Christians. This was only one factor in the many wars that graced Russian soil, but one important reason nonetheless. (In fact, around 1240 when the Mongols were invading Russian territory, Prince Daniel of Galicia (Romanovych) acknowledged the Roman church and accepted a 'papal' crown in an attempt to get help from other Roman Catholics with men and resources to fight the Mongols. His hope was in vain and no help from the other Christian church was forthcoming. Another example would be in the case of 'Pseudo' Dmitri I who was supported by the Catholic Church and the Jesuits as he had promised to become a Catholic and 'roman-ize' Russia if successful in his quest for the tzardom.) Between the years of 1533-1689, Russia fought in wars with Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, and Lithuania... as well as uprisings of the native population. Between the wars, natural disasters and other conflicts as well as the church schism, foreign influences were able to have more opportunities to influence and change the Russian culture that they collided with.

It must be noted that the Russian population and culture did have a mistrust and suspicion of foreign individuals, their religions and their unknown cultures. One prominent Scottish officer stationed in Russia is quoted as saying: 'strangers being looked upon by the best sort as scarcely Christians, and by the plebeians as mere pagans.' Another quote that furthered the sense of Russia’s superiority when it came to religion and the culture of other countries can be found in the quote by the Constantinople Patriarch’s declaration to Tsar Feodor: 'Your great Russian Tsardom, the third Rome, surpasses all in piety; you alone in all the universe are referred to as the Christian Tsar.” To try and limit influence of Westerners, their religions and their ideas, Tsar Alexei attempted to isolate 'non-orthodox foreigners' in Moscow by creating a separate place in the town for them to live in 1652- which later became known as the German Quarter. However, as the government grew stronger and the influence of the church on the population lessened, the defenses that had been built to try and protect the population from Western influences were weakened as well. Part of the 'schism' in the church itself appears to be based on what powers belongs to the church and which powers were the Tsars... a possible influence of Western spiritual thought as the church felt it should have control over all spiritual decisions and authority while the state very much disagreed.

Religion was very much an important part of the lives of all those living in the country of Russia during this time. The church was still an influencing force in the lives of the population as the leaders tried to curb drinking or drunkenness, pagan practices as well as perceived inappropriate entertainment, activities, and disrespect to the church. It seems a safe guess that the schism in the church would have also been very much on the mind of late sixteenth century constituents as laws were passed, people tortured or killed themselves to support their faith, and the resistance (or insistence) to church reforms became widespread. (One source suggests that millions of clergy and laity refused to accept the reformed Russian liturgy.) Many holidays and popular activities were based on religious holidays or celebrations. As serfdom became settled law, the church encouraged the upper classes to treat the serfs with generosity and compassion. Both the church and the Russian government concentrated heavily on the teaching of obedience and the church was also responsible for much of the education that was performed during these years for the upper classes, etc... Religion also heavily influenced art, architecture as well as literature.

Western religion influenced the Russian orthodox religion in a few ways. Western influences changed the way that Russians looks at the arts are well as architecture. Architecture and suburbs began to take on a more 'western look' in the late seventeenth century which can be seen in the ornate window decorations, mirrors and imported goods of the period. Theater was also brought to Russia and was even viewed by the czar... even though the orthodox church didn't approve of drama. Secular artists became more prominent and over time were no longer the minority when compared to numbers of icon painters. One of Tsar Alexei's chief advisers started a monastery with a free school to teach Latin, Greek, and philosophy. It must be noted that even with western influences, the orthodox church was able to dominate intellectual life even during the time of the European Renaissance and the Reformation.

In conclusion, the lives of Russians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were very much affected by not only the Orthodox religion which permeated their culture and society, but also by the gradual influences that came from Europe and other surrounding countries. Peter I, the tzar known as the first Westernizer and modernizing czar, helped to open Russia to reforms that, unlike his predecessors, were openly encouraged to flourish and grow.... changing Russia and its culture in many ways that can still be felt today.

* A metropolitan is the name for a leader in the Orthodox church. Unlike Rome, the various eastern churches were united in faith, but not controlled by one man. A patriarch could be seen as the spiritual ruler for that area or that section of the church, whereas a metropolitan was subservient to the ruler and/or patriarch of the Byzantine church. By creating a patriarch in Russia, the church's authority was placed more squarely in the hands of Russians and not foreigners... even if they were 'faithful' foreigners. :)


  1. you gaffed on the "baptism" of Russia. -There is not actually an "Orthodox" Christianity in our sense of the word today before 1054. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East%E2%80%93West_Schism

  2. Coo! If that is the only gaff I have made, thank goodness for that. :) Thank you for pointing it out and I think that it is great that my mentor/editor didn't see that as she is so amazingly knowledgeable I do not know what to say. How would you reword the sentence? I got that information from a huge source on Christianity throughout the last three thousand years... Are you sure that Wikipedia isn't too simplified for the basic audience...?